I am writing this article a few days before reaching my seventy-sixth birthday, in response to a question that was put to me asking for my thoughts on the nature of the spiritual journey.
If that question had been put to me early in my Christian life (I became a follower of Jesus Christ at the age of sixteen), I think I would have said that the spiritual journey and the movement toward God are different for everyone. The Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of men and women, I would have argued, leads each stumbling soul in the way his or her individuality requires. There is no similarity of method or strategy.
Now, however, after walking with Christ for sixty years and being a minister and counselor for well over fifty of those years, I have come to view things in a much different light. It has become clear to me that though not all may travel along the road of discipleship at the same rate, there is a divine pattern at work which allows the widest variety for each Christian’s idiosyncrasies, but seeks through the Holy Spirit to bring us toward union with God through spiritual encounters and experiences common to us all.
What does the movement toward God look like? Is a picture really possible? My study of the great saints of the past has led me to believe that it is. Whilst every Christian is unique, there are some things they all appear to have in common, something which puts them together. The deeper one gets into the biographies of the heroes of faith, the more one notices a striking unanimity of thought on what the movement toward God looks like.
Let us consider, then, what I believe are the four most basic issues which help us understand the nature of the spiritual journey. Other truths can be added, but these four I consider the irreducible minimum of what union with God necessitates.
Desire for Holiness
The first of these is a deep desire to overcome sin and experience biblical holiness. It is a yearning that can be found, I believe, in all who long to move into a close and deep relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah speaks to this perhaps more powerfully than any of the Old Testament saints. In the cry of the seraphim, Isaiah learns the truth about God. The blinding glimpse of God’s burning holiness educes the obligation and desire for holiness to become part of his own soul. He is compounded of but one desire, that the burning holiness of God would sear the sin out of his innermost being. Symbolically it is done. A live coal touches his lips, and his sin is purged.
This same deep desire to be rid of sin and to pursue holiness, I say again, is characteristic of all who yearn after God. It was there in the heart of the ancients like St. Teresa, and it is there also in the heart of the moderns such as John Stott. In one of his writings Stott says, “One of the God-appointed functions of the Holy Spirit is to make us know, feel, mourn, loathe and forsake our sins.”1 I was present at a meeting to honor John Stott when one of his close colleagues said of him that his greatest longing in life is to be holy and more and more like Jesus Christ every day.
Several months after my conversion, my pastor drew my attention to the fact that God’s primary purpose for my life was to make me holy. “Not happiness first,” he said, ‘and holiness if possible, but holiness first and happiness as a consequence.” I remember feeling somewhat intimidated by this statement. I was not sure that I wanted to be holy. I didn’t fully understand what the term meant. To me the word seemed musty and hinted at otherworldliness and repression carried to unnatural lengths. “Holy” people, I thought, were those who dressed in dark colors, carried a black Bible, and had a fixed and solemn expression on their faces.
The word “holy” is not easy to define even among scholars. The Concise Oxford Dictionary uses just one word to explain it: sanctity. It may be difficult to come up with a clear definition, but there is something in the soul of every Christian that recognizes and responds to the holy even though he or she is unable to give the concept clear expression.
I have found in my own life and through reading the biographies of the saints that the best way to understand holiness is not first to seek a definition but to gaze steadily at Jesus Christ and consult one’s heart and mind at the reaction one feels. Never did human form hold one so pure, so adorable, so holy. Whatever degree of holiness is present in my life—and God knows how I lament the fact that I am not as holy as I ought to be or even long to be—has come about not by poring over the Bible (that has helped), but in prayer and by meditation, just gazing at Jesus.
This adoring contemplation of the Savior has been called “the secret of the saints.” Their biographies show them not to be weighing, probing, asking, but looking in love and longing on Jesus. And their holiness was a by-product of this. They grew in holiness as they grew in the steadiness and fixity of their gazing.
Throughout Church history all the saints are of one mind on this issue—because God is holy, we must be holy, too. It is, I believe, the first thing the Holy Spirit wants to educe in us as we set out on our personal spiritual journey and the movement toward God.
Another feature one encounters in the movement toward God, I believe (and again, an essential part of soul-making), is the element of suffering. Studdert Kennedy, a chaplain in the First World War, used to say that anyone who is undisturbed by the problem of suffering had either a hard heart or a soft brain. Kennedy was right. Everyone who believes in a God of love finds this problem difficult of solution. It is perhaps the greatest mystery in the universe. People have often asked me during a counseling or spiritual direction session, “what possible meaning can there be in suffering?” I usually quote the reply of Dennis Covington, who, when asked that same question, said, “Mystery is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.”
Both biblical teaching and personal experience combine to show us that God uses suffering to bring us to holiness and maturity. Scripture fairly bulges with the fact that time and time again God brought His suffering saints through the most difficult of circumstances—mental, emotional, and physical—to new heights of holiness and maturity.
If you will permit a personal reference, I know from experience that whatever character has been built up in me, whatever of Christ’s love and compassion flows through my life, has largely come about through suffering. I have had my fair share of it over the years. Some have said more than my fair share.
Close on twenty years ago I lost my wife to cancer. Three weeks later my father died from a heart attack. Some years later my only two sons, David and John, died within ten months of each other, one from a liver disease and the other from a massive heart attack. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has now spread into my bones.
In the last year I was diagnosed with “maturity onset diabetes” and a few months ago came close to losing the sight in my right eye through a detached retina. It will not be all that long now before some wise, white-coated young doctor will look me over and put me in the NTBR bracket (Not To Be Resuscitated). But through the emotional and physical suffering I have experienced, I have come to sense a new note in my ministry, a deeper compassion for those in need, and an increasing awareness that I am, as Scripture puts it, being made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10, NIV 2).
The place of suffering in the Christian life is not a very popular doctrine amongst modern-day believers. But have you noticed? There is always an indefinable something about people who have suffered. They have a fragrance around them that reminds one of the meekness and gentleness of Christ. Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, one of Britain’s great preachers of a past generation, was once asked what he thought of an up-and-coming young preacher. “At the moment,” he said, “he is a good preacher. When he has suffered, he will be a great preacher.”
I have often asked myself: what should be a Christian’s attitude to suffering? After long thought on the matter I am convinced that it should be worship. I am always challenged whenever I read the opening chapter of the Book of Job, who, after receiving the stunning news of the death of his sons and the loss of all his possessions, fell on his knees and—worshiped (Job 1:20). I wish I could tell you this was my reaction when I lost the four close members of my family in death. I cried out in prayer, but I am afraid it took me a long while after each event to kneel down and worship. Yet I am much more favored than Job. He knew only the God of the crocodile; I know the God of the cross. Though I hold fully to the idea that there is meaning behind suffering, it seems I still have some way to go in this matter of responding correctly to it.
John Stott says, “I sometimes wonder if the real test of our hunger for holiness is our willingness to experience any degree of suffering if only thereby God will make us holy.”
Relationship is the Essence of Reality
A third consideration we need to bring into focus in relation to the nature of the spiritual journey is the importance God places on interpersonal relationships. There is no doubt that interpersonal relationships are fraught with difficulties. The miserable minor jealousies which can afflict a local church (even amongst its leaders) are known to all who have any contact with them.
What pettiness can hang around a theological seminary! It astonished a mentor of mine when he discovered during his training for the ministry, “scholars, nigh to being ‘world authorities’ on their subject, belittling each other in private with the spleen of chorus girls!” 3
I go to my bookshelves and pick up almost at random the many biographies I possess of the saints of the past, and I guarantee that somewhere in their pages I will come across a paragraph that talks about their difficulties with relationships and how they sought to overcome them. And many of them tell how even though they may have inherited a difficult and passionate temperament, they allowed grace to work in their lives until they soared above such things as pettiness, temper, and lack of consideration toward others.
But what is the divine purpose behind relationships? In a phrase it is, I believe, to enable us to understand the essence of reality. Let me explain. Some years ago, I heard Larry Crabb make reference to a quotation from a book entitled The Everlasting God, in which the author wrote
The Father loves the Son and gives Him everything. The Son always does that which pleases the Father. The Spirit takes the things of the Son and shows them to us . . . we learn from the Trinity that relationship is the essence of reality and therefore the essence of our existence, and we also learn that the way this relationship should be expressed is by concern for others. Within the Trinity itself is a concern by the persons of the Trinity for one another. 4
That statement, especially the phrase “relationship is the essence of reality,” brought about one of the greatest paradigm shifts in my thinking I have ever experienced. I used to believe that truth is the essence of reality, but here was a reputable theologian saying differently. The more I considered it, the more right it seemed. For days I reflected on it, and looking back, I can see how that one insight has changed my approach to God, to people, and to the whole of my work for the Master.
I came to see as I pondered this new truth that the energy which pulses at the heart of the Trinity is other-centered. Each member of the Trinity is more concerned about the others than He is about Himself. Part of the movement toward God, I am convinced, is learning to relate to others in the way the Trinity relate to one another—in true other-centeredness.
This, of course, as you well know, is easier said than done. In my early years on the Christian pathway, I regarded the people with whom I was in relationship as the cause of many of my problems until I read somewhere this statement: “Relationships do not so much cause problems as reveal problems.” I reflected on this at great length until I came to realize that the real problem I was having in relationships was not so much what others did but the way I reacted to what they did. The bigger problem was not them, but me.
To be thoroughly honest, the greatest challenge of my life has been to consider others as more important than myself. But nowhere have I found a greater opportunity to demonstrate other-centeredness than in my relationships, in moving in love to those I might even dislike.
Dr. E. Stanley Jones defines Christianity as “the science of relating well to others in the spirit of Jesus Christ.” He also added that “we are as mature as our relationships.” Unless we learn to relate to others in the way the members of the Trinity relate to each other—in other-centeredness— we may well find our union with God somewhat blocked.
The fourth aspect of the nature of the spiritual journey I would draw your attention to and, again, one that is common to all the great saints of the past is to see life in the light of eternity. The great and the godly seem always to be able to keep heaven in view. The silly little honors that men clutch at and scheme for, they see as the baubles they are. The material things for which so many crave are given a minor place in the lives of those who know what it is to draw close to God; they see them as no more important than the furnishings of an inn. After all, they are staying for only the night. With a mind set on the glory of God and a heart aflame with supernatural love, those who move close to God can sing:
This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue,
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.5
Malcolm Muggeridge, in his book Jesus Rediscovered, said that ever since he was a boy he had a sense of being a stranger in this world and of a world beyond this to which he felt he was moving. He wrote, “the only ultimate disaster that can befall us I have come to realise is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens, we cannot forget our true homeland. 6
Heaven is our home; it’s where we belong. It is a theme that must be kept in constant focus. Now I know that some will disagree with this statement and say a preoccupation with heaven will lead us to become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. But some of the greatest social reformers—John Wesley, Lord Shaftesbury, William Booth, for example—were God-intoxicated men who always had heaven in view. They worked the better down here because by faith they always had the perfect in view. It is not “otherworldly” to talk and think and look forward to heaven—providing that is not all we think about.
I cannot claim to have kept heaven before me in all the days of my Christian life, and there was a time when I would read the apostle Paul’s statement in Philippians that as far as heaven was concerned, he was eager to go but for their sake willing to stay, and say to myself, I am willing to go but eager to stay. For the past third of my life, however, my thinking has changed. I am now willing to stay but eager to go. And the anticipation of that upholds me as I begin each new day.
“The happiest people on earth,” someone has said, “are those who keep their eyes focused on heaven.” The Psalmist wrote, “In thy presence is fullness of joy. In thy right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, NASB 7). Joy will be found when we get to heaven through realization, but it can also be found now by anticipation.
Well, there it is—the irreducible minimum of what I believe the movement toward God looks like—the desire to be holy, understanding the value of suffering, enjoying Trinitarian-style relationships, and living in the light of eternity.
There is, as I have said, much more to it than this, but these are the basic ways I believe the Holy Spirit works in a questing soul, panting in the foothills and yearning toward the lofty heights of union and fellowship with God.
Anyone may climb.